Ollie Watkins’ remarkable hat-trick proved instrumental as Aston Villa, displaying unrelenting prowess, celebrated their reentry into European football with a resounding triumph over Hibernian in the first-leg Europa Conference League play-off.
Amid pre-match attention focused on Hibs hero John McGinn’s return to his Easter Road roots, it was England’s striker Watkins who rightfully stole the spotlight, delivering an extraordinary performance to a capacity crowd at Easter Road.
Despite an encouraging start, the Scottish Premiership team found themselves overwhelmed by the clinical efficiency of their Premier League opponents, with Watkins expertly guiding in a header and subsequently nodding in a second from close range.
The momentum continued for Villa as Leon Bailey thumped a header of his own into the net, firmly establishing their dominance at halftime. Regarded as tournament favorites by many, Villa showcased their strength in their first European appearance in over a decade.
Watkins believed he had secured a hat-trick soon after the break, only to be initially denied by an offside call. However, the VAR review rightfully validated his first-time finish past David Marshall. A penalty converted by Douglas Luiz added to the historical win for Unai Emery’s team, equalling a record in European competitions.
In the forthcoming second leg at Villa Park, Hibs and Lee Johnson will be focused on damage control, following their collapse in the face of Villa’s relentless attack, which briefly unsettled the visitors early on.
On the opposing sideline, four-time Europa League champion Emery opted for a strong lineup, featuring significant summer signings Pau Torres and Moussa Diaby.
Despite the spirited home crowd’s fervor, Villa had to endure a brief onslaught from Hibs, including a feeble Martin Boyle volley and an unsuccessful penalty appeal. Once Watkins expertly slotted Lucas Digne’s precise delivery into the far corner, the question shifted from victory to the extent of Villa’s triumph.
They secured five goals, and the tally could have been even greater if not for Marshall’s exceptional save denying Bailey, along with near-miss headers from Diego Carlos and Ezri Konsa.